When we sat down to chat with New York Times’ Frugal traveller, Seth Kugel, this week, it was clear he had a lot to say on one of his largest expenses: hotel stays.Though he’s typically tasked with finding frugal ways to explore far-off destinations, Kugel says it takes a lot more work than plucking a $5/night hostel out of a guidebook.
“My general feeling is, if you’re a traveller who wants to stay in a hostel, you don’t need my help,” he says, “It’s boring to stay in hostels. What I want to do is find a place for readers that’s relatively cheap but might be hard to find, like a $16/night place in Bolivia or how to try stuff like Couch Surfing or AirBnB.”
Kugel’s already shared the simple way he finds hotels when websites fail him. We asked him for a few other pointers on booking lodging:
Follow your tongue: “I find there is huge difference in [getting discounts] in a place where you speak the language and a place where you don’t. If I spoke fluent Mandarin, I’d be all over China all the time. If you are going to call [to book a hotel], have a friend who speaks the language call for you. Being a native speaker and chatting up the person, they’re much more likely to get a discount.”
Use the “one-week” tactic: “Longer stays mean more negotiating power with hotels and bed and breakfasts––pretty much anything that’s not an international chain. I see this happening again and again. You can almost always bargain with hotels and the number one way is to say ‘I want to stay a week. What kind of discount can you give me?’ It may not work in every single destination, but small businesses want to fill their space, even in the U.S.”
Learn to walk the walk. “It’s nice to have a place booked for the day you arrive, but there’s a lot to be said for spending a few hours on your first day checking out various spots. You’re much more likely to get a discount when you go in person than when you book by email or phone because you’re there. When you walk in, ask if you can see one of their rooms and then walk out to check out another place. [You’ll find] the price sometimes comes down as you’re walking off.”
Learn how to bid. “If you’re ever staying in a [major] chain hotel anywhere in the U.S. and you’re not bidding on Priceline, you’re basically losing money. It’s an investment learning how to bid on Priceline, but it’s very much worth it. Once you learn how to do it, it’s a huge money saver, especially in the U.S. “
Follow familiar faces. “I’m definitely in favour of choosing destinations in favour of where you know people. It could be lodging or it could be connections, but having a local friend could change your experience entirely. [While in Norway recently] I spent a whole week where a friend of a friend was having a party and it made a huge difference in enjoying the place. I had a couple nights with a free place but more importantly, I got to hang out with a couple Norwegians. I would certainly give up the number one place I want to go if I had a personal connection [somewhere else].”
Skip hostels. “The hostel route is generally used by travellers under 30, which I’m not. This is a great way to travel and it’s a lot of fun to meet people, but it’s neither the way the Frugal traveller likes to travel nor the particular way that I like to travel. With one exception: If the place has outrageously priced lodging, I will absolutely go with a hostel.”
You can follow all Kugel’s travels via Twitter.
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